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Reflections – Egyptian Theatre

“Throughout the whole theatre an effort has been made for strength and dignity, as the Egyptian style in itself is a monumental one.”

Although this quote was published in the DeKalb Daily Chronicle just one day before the Egyptian Theatre first opened its doors in 1929, architect Elmer F. Behrns’ description of his $300,000 venue could just as easily find its place in a current analysis of the theatre’s resurrection.

With construction beginning in 1928, the Egyptian Theatre’s design is derived from the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb and the Egyptian-esque trend which followed. It offered the community the cultural and social boost needed by putting on silent films and “talkies,” as well as vaudeville performances on weekends.

The Egyptian was popular in the 1930’s for “talkies”, movies with sound. The theatre is shown here in 1934.

In addition to having been constructed almost solely by DeKalb-based companies, community support for the building at the time can be seen in the multitude of congratulatory promotions by local businesses in the DeKalb Daily Chronicle.

This notion of social pride, stemming from the possession of something unique, is ultimately what allowed the Egyptian Theatre to survive as the decades raced onward. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, movies, news reels, and the infrequent live event became the most common theatre offerings.

Furthermore, from 1932 to 1974, the Egyptian was home to the annual DeKalb County Farm Bureau meeting with the theatre at it’s capacity of 1400. Here, a performance was presented, with the business assembly either preceding or following.

By the late ‘70s, however, despite performances by bands like Heart and Kansas, the Egyptian Theatre had become a shadow of its former glory.

A group of local citizens formed Preservation of Egyptian Theatre, Inc. to save the theatre from demolition in the 1970s.

On the verge of being condemned and demolished due to its rapidly crumbling interior, a group of local citizens formed Preservation of Egyptian Theatre, Inc. (PET), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which still owns and operates the theatre. Through community support, the group was able to obtain a lease for the building less than a week before its scheduled demolition. Soon thereafter, the Egyptian was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, thereby giving them the ability to apply for state grants.

After receiving $2.3 million in aid from the state, the Egyptian Theatre was remodeled in the ‘80s and reopened in 1983 under the community guidance of PET.

The Egyptian was remodeled again in 2019, updating bathrooms, expanding the concession stand, providing additional space for storage and events, and adding air conditioning for the first time at a total cost of $6.5 million.

The theatre’s original fire curtain was hand-painted in 1929. It is shown here in 1978 and still used today.

Despite the fluidity in its current show types, such as classic rock cover bands, magic shows, and body-building competitions, the original spirit of the Egyptian will likely never fade. This is not just thanks to its unique design, but also the collaborative efforts of those who have been raised alongside the Egyptian and who seek to uphold its purpose of mutual entertainment and community pride.

Information provided by the DeKalb County History Center. For more information visit
www.DeKalbCountyHistory.org.